University Teachers Union hopes to announce endorsements before primary

University of Montana professors got to inspect three of their own former students Tuesday when all three Democratic candidates for governor attended a forum.

Secretary of State Mike Cooney, Attorney General Joe Mazurek and State Auditor Mark O'Keefe all graduated from UM in various programs, and their plans for helping the state's education system reflected that common background. However, they offered some different strategies for bringing new money and status to university needs.

The University Teachers Union arranged the visit. UTU President Kay Unger said the union also hopes to meet with the Republican gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Judy Martz and UM law professor Rob Natelson, in the near future. She added that the union hopes to announce endorsements before the June 6 primary.

Cooney said he didn't anticipate the state either raising or lowering taxes in the near future, so extra education funding would have to come out of the existing budget. He proposed asking the Legislature to deliver budgets for K-12 and university education spending at the beginning of the session, and promised to sign them within the first two weeks. That would prevent legislators from using education cuts as the source of last-minute spending for other programs at the end of the session.

He supported pay increases for public service employees paid with up-front general fund dollars, rather than past practice of making departments pay for raises by cutting other spending. And, Cooney said, he'd back union efforts at collaborative bargaining before university administrations bring their budget requests to the Legislature. That way would work better than having unions try to negotiate separate deals with Helena during the session, he said.

Asked what kind of person he'd choose for a new member of the state Board of Regents, Cooney said he wasn't going to be promising jobs to people. However, he said he wanted someone with a background in teaching and would solicit advice from the Montana Public Employees Association.

Education in general could be improved by fostering more cooperation between the regents and the state Board of Education, which supervises K-12 activity, the candidate added. The Commissioner of Higher Education's office currently leans too much toward administration needs over faculty concerns, and he'd advocate to change that. But, he noted, the governor's office has little power over the largely autonomous higher education officials.

Cooney supported allowing gay and lesbian couples obtaining health insurance from the university or state policies. He said his administration would work to break down discriminatory barriers of all kinds, adding that it makes good financial sense to have more people, rather than less, covered by health insurance.

Research and development program grant money should be found in the state's budget surplus, not its coal trust fund, Cooney said. He also opposes returning all or part of the surplus as a tax rebate, calling it bad fiscal policy.

Mazurek said the biggest difference between his ticket and his opponents' is the 28 years of combined legislative experience he and running mate Dorothy Bradley bring to the job. That background would give his administration better ability to forge and pass legislation in support of education, he said.

Teacher and professor salaries need to be raised without adding to students' tuition burdens, Mazurek said. He said the woman who cleans his Helena office is moonlighting because her day job as a teacher doesn't pay enough to make her house payment and cover education loan debts.

He proposed investing the state's budget surplus toward education spending. But, he added, some programs may need to be cut rather than allow underfunding to weaken the entire system.

The university system may have lost some of its negotiating power when its six campuses were restructured into two divisions, Mazurek said. That made it harder for legislators to see the impact and value of their regional campuses, and prompted consideration of the system as a whole. Mazurek said campus administrators should explore ways to revive those distinctions, although he didn't specifically suggest dropping the restructured system.

O'Keefe said one of his first priorities as governor would be to combine the university and K-12 health insurance programs with the state employees' program, to boost buying power and control costs. He would establish more partnerships between local businesses and colleges of technology to increase the supply of skilled workers. And he called for reducing the education system's dependence on enrollment figures for budget planning.

The governor's office should have a chief technology officer to coordinate computer and communications systems through all state agencies, including the education community, O'Keefe said. He also advocates direct state bonding of new classroom construction (instead of funding new buildings with student fees) and an increased effort to recruit and graduate American Indian students.

Like Cooney, O'Keefe proposed passing education spending early in the legislative session to protect it from last-minute funding raids. He also said he would use economic incentives to encourage new business to locate in Montana, as a way of further enhancing the state's economy and bringing more tax dollars for education. And he supports letting the union leaders join university presidents and regents in the effort to lobby the Legislature for education funding.

O'Keefe also supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to have access university or state employee health insurance, calling it a good business decision. He added it was no different than the current policy of allowing non-married heterosexual couples to buy such policies.

Business owners and representatives should be recruited to lobby for university needs at the Legislature, O'Keefe said. They would bring greater credibility to university claims of bringing economic benefit to the state through things like research and development programs, he said.

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